October 04, 2005
Via Lenin's Tomb, an article in the Socialist Worker points out that the other occupying power in the Iraq war was ALSO involved in a dirty little counterinsurgency war in the 1960s. So skip past the obligatory British political infighting and the "colonialist butcher" reference, and you get to the meat:
One British army officer in Aden in 1967 describes the developing disaster in the following familiar terms:
“A major problem which was to recur throughout the campaign was the lack of any specific, reliable intelligence about the enemy — where they were, what their organisation was, what their aims and objectives might be, or indeed, who they were”...
Readers of British newspapers at the time were treated to a bewildering array of acronyms to describe the competing factions of the resistance in Aden, as well as tales of “foreign extremists” from Egypt and Yemen.
These militias, strangely, appeared set on killing British soldiers as well as each other, despite the fact that Britain had promised them independence as soon as the trouble had stopped.
What made it worse was that the security forces themselves appeared to be arming various organisations — and there were growing fears of clashes between the local police and militia and the British army.
I've cut quite a bit out of the middle, much of it quite interesting. We pick up with a new Labour government having decided that, after all & despite election-year promises, they wouldn't hand over power to a Yemeni government that had taken power in a 1964 coup.
This shameless U-turn was dressed up with the same warmed over arguments we are hearing today. Suddenly it was remembered that promises had been made to the sultans, that there were risks if Britain’s “word” was seen to be worthless, and that carrying out Labour policy would send a “dangerous message” to those who would make this vital region a centre of instability...
Publicly there was talk of a compromise involving a unitary state in South Arabia giving the sultans the semblance of authority, but allowing the majority control through elections. The condition of this agreement, however, was the maintenance of a British military base in the region, with Aden staying inside a Western system of alliances.
This was a “compromise” which suited the new US masters of the region. While local notables and moderate nationalists negotiated with the British, fighters in Yemen — many of them workers from Aden — began a sustained guerrilla campaign against the British.
In a region where facade parliaments had been a vehicle for imperial power and feudal privileges, the British attempted to impose a solution that forced the population into an alliance against the forces of Arab nationalism. This was simply a recipe for civil war.
The insistence on a settlement that would suit British and American interests in the region was presented as “ensuring a stable transition” and all the rest of the rubbish we hear today.
There were two predictable results. The first was civil war and bloodshed. The second was the British scuttling out early in 1967 without any agreement.
And Aden is simply one, now largely forgotten, example of how these protracted negotiations about the nature of the post-colonial system function.
They are presented as attempts to prevent civil war, but the central concern is always with shaping the destiny of territories and whole regions in the interests of great powers.
From the Kurds of northern Iraq to the Arabs of Iran, the ethnic conflict now regularly treated as arguments for foreign intervention have their roots in the reordering of the world carried out by tardily retreating great powers.
As history is recycled, it is important to understand that these were bad arguments then — and they are bad arguments now.
Anyone know enough Yemeni history to make much of a comment? For what it's worth, this Wikipedia article on the history of Yemen seems to have a much more Tory slant on things. And this is a massive collection of oral histories & photographs from British soldiers who served in the Aden conflict. Far different in tone, of course, from the Socialist Worker piece, but you can certainly see the parallels.
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The SW piece I think is overdone in that it blames everything on British imperialism. Yemen became a proxy battleground between the monarchy of Saudi Arabia and 'Arab' socialism that Egypt patently wanted to dominate (vid. Syria). The British sided with the Saudis to maintain control over Aden, but the civil war to my mind sprang primarily from the ideological conflict between conservative monarchism and revolutionary socialism and the intervention of the regional Arab hegemons. Look at the UAE, which the British shored up against the depradations of the Saudis because, again, they wanted to maintain control over strategic sea routes - I think it's provides a pretty strong suggestion that British priorities focused on securing trade routes, and they'd ally with whoever could guarantee that for them. In that I agree with the SW piece - basically I think the author, as many Marxists are wont to do, ignores the local power plays because of his fixation on imperialism.
Posted by: waterboy at October 4, 2005 04:03 PM